The warmth of a mother’s hand is strong, loving. The memory nourishes us, or marks us if there’s a lack. That’s where a grandmother can step in. Indigenous Grandmothers are interrupting current colonial systems with their wise community. They ask Canada to address the disconnect between words and action on the part of governments and decision-makers.
“We want our grandmothers put back in their rightful place in our communities,” says Grandmother Isabelle Meawasige. She is a bear clan woman from Serpent River, whose roots are Ojibway and Algonquin.
In a letter to the UN for the 50th session of the Human Rights Council, she points out the lack of centrality of Indigenous women’s research and their voices for addressing violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada. She is seventy-three years old, and has worked for over thirty years as a social worker. She has seen the connection between extractive industries and violence against women – and has known friends who went missing. Her home territory knows the damage of mining and logging “man camps” (temporary labour camps).
“As a grandmother in my community, we have a lot of power. We have a lot of voice,” says Meawasige. “And people are so very, very hungry for what the grandmothers know.”
Meawasige is lead grandmother of Kii Ga Do Waak Nookimisuk (Grandmothers Council), which works to address sexual violence, exploitation, and human trafficking in Indigenous communities in Ontario through cultivating and restoring traditional roles and responsibilities. In their letter informing the 2022 UN Special Rapporteur’s report on violence against Indigenous women and girls, they emphasize that “the existing political, economic and social structures in Canada seem incapable of transforming attitudes and implementing policies to effectively end violence against Indigenous women in Canada.”
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, there has been a 40% increase in the number of crisis trafficking situations reported, according to Polaris Project findings. The scale is enormous – a 2022 report by the International Labour Organization says there are nearly 27.6 million adults and children in situations of forced labour around the world on any given day.
Violence against the land correlates to violence against women
The grandmothers council sees a connection between colonialism and detachment from land, and how this correlates to violence against women. Reports from the United Nations have found human trafficking rises in areas where the natural environment is under stress, and links between gender-based violence and environmental crimes, notes the Kii-Ga-Do-Waak website.
Jaqueline St.Pierre works with Kii-Ga-Do-Waak. She wears many roles: communications, fundraising, coordination, and adopted granddaughter. She explains, “colonialism’s extractive industries couldn’t do what they do if people were connected to the land.”
Indigenous Climate Action (ICA) details how the violence against the land through the extraction and exploitation of resources and fossil fuels perpetuates violence against women. “Resources taken from our lands contaminates the environment and damages ecosystems all while increasing greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere which [is] worsening climate change,” reads the ICA website. And, these projects bring with them the man camps that result in increased sex trafficking and violence against women, explains ICA. UN Special Rapporteur James Anaya brought this to the attention of the UN in 2014, “Indigenous women have reported that the influx of workers into Indigenous communities also led to increased incidences of sexual harassment and violence, including rape and assault.”
“Women were the ones who kept that connection to the land going,” explains St.Pierre. The connection was reinforced through medicine, through living the teachings. Separating bonds between mothers and children would sever the connection to the land, and residential schools were one of the tools.
“No matter how strong those warriors, no matter how many bullets or how straight the arrow – if a woman’s heart is on the ground, we may as well just give up.”
—Nookisimuk Grandmothers share a teaching
Meawasige notes, the last residential school closed in 1996 – this is not historical, survivors are alive and still parenting today. They were sent home to face the hurdles of living through trauma. Economic instability and social disruption causes people to become more vulnerable to the dangerous tactics traffickers use to exploit them.
The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIW), “Reclaiming Our Power and Place,” was a public inquiry held in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action #41. The inquiry found “despite their different circumstances and backgrounds, all of the missing and murdered are connected by economic, social and political marginalization, racism, and misogyny woven into the fabric of Canadian society.”
The mandate of the National Inquiry was to look into and report on existing institutional policies and practices that address or perpetrate violence. The Grandmothers’ letter to the UN points out a flaw: “Implied in the final report’s definition of violence is the intersection of ongoing colonialism with the domestic violence that has seeped into Indigenous homes and communities.”
“A key consideration for being in good relation is to challenge the false, but predominant perception that Indigenous peoples are the core of the problem,” reads the letter.
“Welcome home, my girl”
Kii-Ga-Do Waak Nookimisuk is healing through traditional ceremonies, counselling, and rites of passage. Through gatherings, education, and training, they help raise an understanding of the nature of sexual violence and exploitation committed against Indigenous Peoples. The grandmothers are working with women and girls who have been trafficked.
“We bring them into a tent, and spend two or three days inside, fasting,” describes “Meawasige. They share, they connect. And when they are ready, they go into a sweat lodge to return to the earth womb. They can rebirth themselves in that lodge.”
The grandmothers sing to them when they come out of the sweat lodge. “There are very, very powerful things going on,” she describes. A firekeeper has the sacred fire burning. The girls can make their offerings and prayers at that sacred fire. That’s where they can let go of the things they no longer need to carry.
“There they can leave it all off, they can drop all the hurts,” Meawasige says. When they come out, the grandmothers are there with outstretched arms and towels to surround them.
Meawasige shares a story of when a girl had been trafficked. Vulnerable, she was pulled away and “she disappeared from her community without a ripple. No one said goodbye.”
When that young woman was able to take steps away from her situation, the grandmothers decided to have a circle for her, called Welcome Home. Meawasige went to speak to the Chief of that girl’s nation, and told him this story. He came to the grandmothers’ circle, and welcomed her home.
When she came out of her sweat lodge, and “the grandmothers wrapped her in that blanket, the girl fell to the ground, her heart was on the ground.” Meawasige explains. The grandmothers share a teaching, if a woman’s heart is on the ground, there is no hope. “No matter how strong those warriors, no matter how many bullets or how straight the arrow – if woman’s heart is on the ground, we may as well just give up.”
The grandmothers picked her up off that ground. And they rocked her, back and forth. And all the while, they sang a song to her, called ‘I’ll love you forever.’ Meawasige shares, “That was another girl that came home. She was fully home, her heart, her mind, her spirit and her body was fully home.”
“It’s like they’re cleansed off and they are light. Their whole body shows it, their faces are just shining, they’re shining from the inside, out,” Meawasige says.
Why is it that grandmothers can return to a role that is hard for mothers to fill? It might be that it takes that long to heal from early childhood trauma, Meawasige notes. It’s also because of the role of grandmothers for time immemorial – that energy is still alive and calls to her and her circle of women, to be the grandmothers for those who need it most.
Indigenous Grandmothers have a Vital Leadership Role
There’s a special role for grandmothers in Anishinaabe ways. St.Pierre says she hears the grandmothers speak of “how their own ways were like an ember, that had to be buried. And at this time, they’re fanning the flames, to reignite the fire of matrilineal ways.”
“As a grandmother in my community, we have a lot of power. We have a lot of voice,” says Meawasige. “And people are so very, very hungry for what the grandmothers know. When the grandmothers’ fires are lit, people travel for miles to come attend that fire and pray with those grandmothers.”
In the letter to the UN, Measawige explains the Calls for Justice “require greater visibility and involvement of Indigenous women, not as research subjects, but as agents of change in the decision-making processes for new policies and systemic transformation.”
Consistent and ongoing funding distribution is needed, and it needs to support the efforts of grassroots women – particularly Grandmothers.
Indigenous grandmothers, who have a “vital leadership role in their communities, which they continue to exercise, are not being recognized as holders of their cultural rights within traditional governance systems,” explains the letter to the UN. Furthermore, the grandmothers’ council explains, existing Canadian government systems create barriers to access sustainable funding for their cultural and political work. Changes in policy and occasional funding are insufficient – despite recognition of the data, reports, and inquiries such as Native Women’s Association of Canada’s Sisters in Spirit Campaign report (2009), Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2015) and Canada’s National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (2019).
The letter to the UN notes, “too often the resources are funnelled to National Aboriginal organizations, bypassing the grassroot Indigenous-women efforts. Consistent and ongoing funding distribution is needed and it needs to support the efforts of grassroots women, particularly Grandmothers.”
It is a very difficult time right now, says Meawasige, “not gathering our people together and telling them those stories that will float through their blood and rejuvenate them.” But, the pandemic hasn’t stopped the grandmothers. They are continuing their work through phone calls and videoconferencing. Kii-Ga-Do-Waak Nookimisuk are fundraising to create a full-length documentary. The Nokomis Project documentary will serve as an ongoing archive of the grandmother’s initiatives.
There is power in a grandmother’s voice, as they bring teachings and healing to girls and women. That power is a force of love.
Odette is Sagamok Anishnawbek through her mother. As a freelance journalist, Odette’s bylines include Watershed Sentinel, The Resolve, La Converse, The Tyee, Asparagus Magazine, and APTN National News. Odette lives on Klahoose, Homalco, and Tla’amin territories (Cortes Island). You can follow all her stories in one place here.
This article was originally published in French at La Converse.